People in Auschwitz

People in Auschwitz

by Hermann Langbein, Harry Zohn

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People in Auschwitz


People in Auschwitz

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From the Publisher
Hermann Langbein, then a communist activist, was a leading member of the underground movement in Auschwitz concentration camp, and an acute observer of the situation there. His memoir is one of the foundation stones of research on Auschwitz, an indispensable contribution to the complex and fearsome reality of the camp.(Yehuda Bauer, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem)

The preparation of this classic for the English-speaking world makes one of the most important and powerful survivor accounts of Auschwitz accessible to the West, and introduces general readers to the mind and experience of a crucially placed and astonishingly observant witness to the Holocaust. In the first-person literature created by survivors and victims in the ghettos and concentration camps, People in Auschwitz ranks as an historical document with works like The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, and the memoirs of Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell. Langbein's epic, at long last, also serves as a moral antidote and historical counterweight to the memoirs of the notorious Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, first published nearly fifty years ago.(Charles W. Sydnor Jr., author of Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945)

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.60(d)

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People in Auschwitz

By Hermann Langbein

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Author's Rationale

"What Auschwitz was is known only to its inmates and to no one else." This is what Martin Walser wrote under the impression of the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. "Because we cannot empathize with the situation of the prisoners, because their suffering exceeded any previous measure and we therefore cannot form a human impression of the immediate perpetrators, we call Auschwitz a hell and the evildoers devils. This might be an explanation for the fact that when we talk about Auschwitz, we use words that point the way beyond our world." Walser concludes his observation tersely: "However, Auschwitz was not hell but a German concentration camp."

Auschwitz was created in the middle of the twentieth century by the machinery of a state with old cultural traditions. It was real.

In that camp people were exposed to extreme conditions. This study will describe how both prisoners and guards reacted to them, for the people who lived in Auschwitz on the other side of the barbed wire had also been placed in an extreme situation, though it was quite different from the one forced upon the prisoners.

"No one can imagine exactly what happened.... All this can be conveyed only by one of us, ... someone from our small group, our inner circle, provided that someone accidentally survives." These words were written by Zelman Lewental, a Polish Jew who was forced to work in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He was tormented by the idea that posterity would never know what he had to experience. Since he had no hope of surviving Auschwitz, he buried his notes near one of the crematoriums. They were dug up in 1961, but only scraps could still be deciphered.

Many prisoners were plagued by the same worry as Lewental: that the world would never learn about the crimes committed in Auschwitz, or that if any of these became known, they would not be believed. This is how improbable a description of those events was bound to seem to outsiders. I still remember some conversations about this subject. The friends who voiced such fears perished in Auschwitz, but I survived and have borne the burden of a responsibility. We regard it as our task to keep insisting that lessons must be learned from Auschwitz.

For this reason many people have written down their experiences. Shortly after his liberation Viktor Frankl wrote: "We must not simplify things by declaring that some were angels and the others devils." Since then this obligation has gained even more weight. Nevertheless, I am aware of the limitations of one survivor's efforts to give an objective presentation of people in Auschwitz and their problems.

Each of us harbors his personally biased memories and has experienced "his" Auschwitz. The perspective of a person who was always hungry differed markedly from that of an inmate with a job; the Auschwitz of 1942 was quite different from the Auschwitz of 1944. Each camp of the large complex was a world of its own, and that is why many a survivor of Auschwitz will be able to react to individual descriptions by saying, "That's not how I perceived it" or "That's news to me." Since I did not skirt delicate subjects, there may be objections from some who believe that these should not be made public. I did not devise any theory about certain problems discussed in the literature and did not choose examples from the rich material to bolster one theory or another, and for that reason readers committed to some ideology might view my presentation with displeasure.

Is it, then, necessary for me to justify my decision to present a comprehensive study despite such possible objections and my subjective orientation, which I could not and would not suppress? Perhaps the following circumstances will justify this decision.

Like all Austrian prisoners, I was regarded as a German in the concentration camp. Germans were even more privileged in Auschwitz than in other camps because there the percentage of Germans was smaller than in Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps in Germany. Thus I was not crushed by the daily struggle for the most elementary things. As the clerk of the SS garrison physician (Standortarzt), I had no heavy physical labor to perform; I always had a roof over my head, never went hungry, and was able to wash myself and wear clean clothes. We Austrians differed from many equally privileged German political prisoners. These hated Nazism with all their heart, but in some instances they had hailed victories of Hitler's armies or at least regarded them with mixed feelings. By contrast, the politically persecuted Austrians also felt nationally suppressed. We saw our future only in the defeat of the German armies, and our vision was not narrowed by the inhibition of those who believed that what happened was done in the name of their people and that the crushing of Nazism would bring untold misery to that people and abandon it to the vengeance of those now being tortured. That is why the privileges deliberately granted by the camp administration to German inmates had less of a corrupting effect on politically aware Austrians.

My job afforded me a chance to look behind the scenes. However, the camp administration never saddled me with the kind of responsibility for fellow prisoners that every capo or block elder had. Hence I am able to analyze without any personal bias the problems connected with being an inmate functionary.

I was one of the top VIPs in the camp, but I lived in constant fear that the administration might find out that according to Nazi regulations I was not an "Aryan" but a "Mischling" (part-Jew). For as long as a Mischling was treated as a Jew, I had to be prepared to be thrust down the long scale from privileged German to Jew. This rendered me resistant to the condescending compassion a self-assured person might show for that lowest stratum, a feeling of pity that could so easily mingle with contempt.

I was interned as a fighter in the Spanish Civil War and as a communist, and thus I know from my own experience the additional problems faced by members of that party. Since I later broke with it, I gained the freedom and detachment that permit me to deal with problems concerning the conduct of communists in the concentration camps-questions that have elicited a variety of answers in the literature, depending on the political orientation of an author.

I was one of the leaders of the international resistance movement in Auschwitz. The tasks that we set ourselves required us to deal with many problems of camp life and transcend our selves and our current situation. By virtue of my position as the secretary of an SS leader, it was my special assignment to observe the SS men as closely as possible and to differentiate among them in an effort to exploit these differences and create chances to influence those men.

I spent only two years in Auschwitz, from August 1942 to August 1944, but this was the most eventful period. During my nine months in the bunker of Auschwitz I became acquainted with the most extreme situation of the prisoners, except for those assigned to the Sonderkommando (Special Commando) [charged with burning corpses].

However, all this did not initially give me the courage to tackle a presentation of the human problems. This study has had a long gestation period; the first outline is dated January 30, 1962, but I kept hesitating. It took the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt to dispel my doubts about whether I already had the necessary detachment from my experiences to present them objectively. In Frankfurt I faced Josef Klehr, an SS medic who had just been arrested. I knew all about his heinous deeds. At that time, in the fall of 1960, all my painful memories returned, and for a long time I was haunted by the impressions made by that encounter. Five years later, at the conclusion of the big Auschwitz trial, at which Klehr was one of the defendants and which I attended as an observer, especially of Klehr's conduct, I no longer regarded that man as the omnipotent terror of the prison infirmary but as an aged, extremely crude criminal who defended himself ineptly. When I became aware of this transformation, I dared to set to work, and in February 1966 I began to study the sources.

There is an extensive literature on Auschwitz. Primo Levi begins his report about the camp with these words: "The need to tell the 'others,' to let the 'others' participate, had grown into such an immediate and urgent impulse in us that it challenged our other elementary needs. And it is this need that prompted this book, which means that it was written mainly for the sake of an inner liberation." He properly uses a plural pronoun, for many survivors of Auschwitz have put pen to paper out of the same urge.

As a rule, these reports were written quite subjectively, and this is what makes them valuable. Prior to their deportation, life had formed the authors in different ways, and they had different kinds of experiences in the camp. They varied in their abilities, their opportunities to observe, their honesty toward themselves, and their expressiveness. Their reports express all these differences, and each is a tessera in the total picture which no one can convey from his own vantage point.

Only a very small number of survivors of the concentration camps were qualified to record, immediately after their liberation, not only their own experiences but also the entire system of the Nazi concentration camps. Eugen Kogon, Benedikt Kautsky, and David Rousset did have the strength for such a presentation, and errors in detail that were unavoidable at the time do not diminish the importance of their pioneering work in the least.

A critical assessment of the various first-hand accounts can be undertaken only if we compare them with the facts now documented, for a comparison with one's own experiences would be too subjective.

When authors describe events that they have not personally witnessed, errors are understandable, because in the camps rumors tended to embellish anything that was out of the ordinary. There was hardly any author who was able to verify the truth content of a report based only on his own memory.

If an author errs in the description of something he has experienced, this should be a warning for the critical reader. For example, Henry Bulawko claims that upon his arrival at the train station he saw a sign with the inscription "Oswiecim." However, the town called Oswiecim had become part of Upper Silesia, and thus the station bore only the Germanized name Auschwitz, which has achieved such terrible fame. Miklos Nyiszli gives exact figures as well as the ranks of the SS men who were killed on October 7, 1944, during the rebellion of the Sonderkommando, to which he belonged: one first lieutenant (Obersturmführer), twenty-seven technical sergeants (Oberscharführer) and staff sergeants (Scharführer), and fifty-two privates first class (Sturmmänner). According to documents that have been preserved, only three SS men, all of them sergeants (Unterscharführer), were killed on that occasion, and twelve are said to have been wounded. Bernhard Klieger's description of the sexual problem conflicts with all other reports. He speaks of an animalistic sexual voracity and describes its consequences thus: "Males and females did it almost like dogs. Wherever and whenever there was an opportunity, they rushed into each other's arms." This crass generalization is about as accurate as would be the observation that after a long internment everyone weighed eighty-five kilos, Klieger's weight, at the evacuation of Auschwitz.

It is altogether understandable that errors are most likely to be made in a chronological presentation of events. When former inmates are obliged to describe their experiences at trials, they are as a rule most uncertain in giving dates, for daily life in the camps offered too few clues. Elie Wiesel's statement that he lost his sense of time completely has general validity. Wiesel even got the date of his deportation wrong when he remembered that he arrived in Auschwitz in April. His prison number indicates an arrival on May 24.

A fanatical fixation on party politics can induce an author to produce a one-sided presentation. Oszkar Betlen betrays his partisan orientation when he writes: "Of the six clerks in the prison office, only Walser and I were communists, but the other four were decent people, too." However, despite this obvious one-sidedness Betlen is able to make many universally valid statements, and this is true of all first-hand reports that contain errors and distortions. A critical reader who has himself experienced Auschwitz is probably a better judge of what is valid and what cannot be accepted or generalized about than an outsider.

To be sure, methods such as those applied by Bruno Baum are bound to give anyone pause. His little book about resistance in Auschwitz was published in the German Democratic Republic in 1949 and reprinted in 1957 and 1961. Persons named in the first edition as heroes of the resistance were omitted from the later ones because they had broken with the Communist Party, while others were discovered as leaders of the resistance in the third printing because they were then enjoying the favor of the party's leadership.

In referring to my own experiences I usually draw on my book Die Stärkeren: Ein Bericht (The stronger: A report), which I wrote in the winter of 1947-48, when despite a certain detachment from those events my memory was still keen. Decades later it would not be possible for me to reconstruct conversations and events with more telling words than I did then. I wrote that report as a convinced communist and therefore kept silent about many things that communists would not like to read. In the present study I shall discuss problems of that kind by way of a supplement. To be sure, even in Auschwitz I did not share Betlen's view that people could be classified as communists and as others who can be "decent, too."

Understandably enough, surviving members of the SS have not had the same urge to write down their memories of Auschwitz as surviving prisoners did. Nevertheless, there are a few reports of enduring value, first and foremost the memoirs of Rudolf Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, which he wrote in a Cracow prison. Even though he repeatedly attempts to whitewash his conduct, he does give an alarmingly accurate picture of the extermination camp and at the same time unintentionally paints a vivid self-portrait. We also have a report by Pery Broad, who wrote down in a British prisoner-of-war camp what he learned as a member of the Political Department [the camp Gestapo]. Even though he keeps silent about his own actions, he proves to be a keen observer. The concise diary entries of Johann Kremer, an SS physician and university professor, also have documentary value, as well as the merit of having been written on the spot rather than during Kremer's subsequent imprisonment.


Excerpted from People in Auschwitz by Hermann Langbein Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Monumental. . . . Free of self-pity, sentimentality and cliche. . . . Always painstaking about the truth, outlining the reality of Auschwitz . . . So precisely to investigate . . . the problem of the "Auschwitz Universe" . . . and to think it through required extraordinary strength of character, [and] relentless industry.--Domino (Zurich)

Unquestionably, Langbein is one of the best experts on this material.--Wiener Tageblatt

The preparation of this classic for the English-speaking world makes one of the most important and powerful survivor accounts of Auschwitz accessible to the West, and introduces general readers to the mind and experience of a crucially placed and astonishingly observant witness to the Holocaust. In the first-person literature created by survivors and victims in the ghettos and concentration camps, People in Auschwitz ranks as an historical document with works like The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, and the memoirs of Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell. Langbein's epic, at long last, also serves as a moral antidote and historical counterweight to the memoirs of the notorious Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, first published nearly fifty years ago.--Charles W. Sydnor Jr., author of Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945

Meet the Author

Hermann Langbein (1912-1995) was born in Vienna. In 1938 he was a member of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, then he was interned in various French camps. Following the German conquest, he was transferred to Dachau, then to Auschwitz, where he remained for two years. There he was a leading participant in the international resistance organization in the camp. After liberation he became general secretary of the International Auschwitz Committee and later secretary of the Comite International des Camps. Among the many important works he wrote or edited are Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-1945 and Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas.

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